Drama Queen: Real Housewives' Caroline Manzo

updated 06/21/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/21/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Caroline Manzo achieved instant notoriety when she famously declared that her family was "thick as thieves." But when the Franklin Lakes, N.J., matriarch was first asked to try out for the Bravo reality show, "everyone thought she was too boring," says her daughter Lauren. And Mom herself had no interest in stepping into the spotlight alongside younger sister Dina, who'd already been cast. "I said, 'No way,'" Caroline recalls. "I'm older. I'm not 'in.' I thought, 'Why me?'"

Two seasons later that question has been answered. Caroline, 48, has emerged as the de facto den mother of an extended family that includes not only sister Dina Manzo but also sister-in-law Jacqueline Laurita and pal Teresa Giudice. Caroline's tough-as-nails exterior has particularly come in handy as she's guided the clan through increasingly acrimonious encounters with costar Danielle Staub. Last winter Caroline stood by Laurita's daughter Ashley after Staub pressed assault charges against her (the altercation will play out on the show this season). Since then, Caroline's been laying down the law within the family: Stay away from Staub, whose checkered past has long alarmed her. "She doesn't want to destroy Danielle," son Christopher says of Caroline. "She just wants [Danielle] out. She wants things to go back to normal."

Coming to terms with her on-air image hasn't been easy, Caroline admits. "I don't see myself as others see me," she says, as she sits with her children Albie, 24, Lauren, 22, and Christopher, 21, in their ornate living room. "I'm a mom. I'm a wife. Am I really that tough? I don't feel tough."

Her reputation certainly came as a surprise to her kids. "She was never a hard-ass," says Christopher. "The worst thing she'd ever do to scare us would be to say, 'I'm going to call your father!'" Seeing a rare outburst-like that "thick as thieves" moment during dinner, which aired for an audience of 3.5 million last summer-was equally shocking. "I've seen my mom mad three times in my life," says Albie. "One of them was at that dinner."

But no one's denying that Caroline can be blunt. "I never give unsolicited advice, but I don't sugarcoat things," she concedes. "It takes a lot to ruffle my feathers, but when I have to be fierce, I'm fierce." Agrees Laurita: "I trust her opinion, and I know she won't hold back."

Caroline's instinct to prepare for the worst is largely rooted in family tragedy. In 1983 her father-in-law was murdered in a crime with reported Mafia connections. "That shaped my perspective of things," she says. Her husband, Albert, 50, suddenly found himself in charge of the family events hall, the Brownstone-and its multimillion-dollar mortgage. Their children, she decided, would never go through the same upheaval. "We raised them to be warriors. Life can deal you blows," she says. "You just can't let those blows dictate what tomorrow brings."

Now, despite on-air drama, "to my mom's credit, she can block it out," says Albie.

She's even started to take care of her own needs. Over the past year the 5'1" Caroline lost 20 lbs. by cutting out snacks and soda, limiting portions of pasta and walking on the treadmill. "I feel so much better," she says. The slimmer figure is only one self improvement that's been noticed: Her unorthodox approach to skincare, which she recently mentioned on-air, has also turned heads. "I shave my face every day," she says matter-of-factly. "I don't have excessive hair, so it doesn't come back stubbly. It's just like exfoliating."

Still, Caroline says she's not likely to spend too much time focused on herself. She cheered on hubby Albert as he lost 100 lbs. thanks to lap-band surgery, and more recently she dealt with a tricky romantic situation when her daughter began dating son Albie's best friend. "I wasn't going to allow it to come between them as a brother and sister. I told them, 'Fix it now,'" she says. Not surprisingly, with Caroline giving the order, "they fixed it," she says with a shrug. (Albie learned to live with his kid sister dating his pal.)

Another matter all three of her kids can agree on? Their once-bland mom has suddenly gotten a lot cooler. "We used to make fun of her: 'Ma, you have to find something to do,'" Christopher recalls. "Next thing I know, she's on Jay Leno."

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